John 6:38 and ESS

The following is a guest post from Dr. Mark Jones concerning John 6:38 and those who use it to advance the notion of eternal relations of submission and authority within the Godhead.


“For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me.” – John 6:38

Those holding to the eternal submission (or subordination or ERAS) of the Son reason that a verse like John 6:38 is more consistent with their view.

I think ESS undermines the classical view of God’s will as identical with his essence. God’s will is one, indivisible act. Because God is simple and his will is identical with his essence, there cannot be different acts of willing in God. There can be no such thing as eternal submission in God when his will is understood as one, indivisible act. It makes as much sense to say the attributes of power or authority submit as it does that a will can submit among the three persons. There is no difference between God’s will and his knowledge, power, authority, etc. (Hence Grudem has to question whether “authority” is a divine attribute proper to all three persons – an incredible move).

Now, how do we understand the language of John 6:38 in an orthodox way that shows you don’t have to go in the direction of Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, et al who think the plain reading of this text (and others like it) is consistent with or proves the eternal submission of the Son?

Since God has one will, but God is three persons, we hold that the external works of the Trinity are undivided: opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. However, because they have several subsistences (modus subsistendi), each person may perform different works, though we should note all three persons concur in every work. Thus, the Father raised Christ (Rom. 4:24; Col. 2:12-13); Christ raised himself (John 2:19; 10:17-18); and the Spirit raised Christ (Rom. 8:11).

Yet, the Son, not the Father, comes down from heaven (Jn. 6:38).

In the incarnation, for example, the act is willed by the three persons, but the act terminates upon the Son. Reformed theologians have claimed that the undivided works ad extra often manifest on one of the persons as their terminus operationis.

ESS proponents have trouble understanding how the Son can do the will of the Father apart from their own construction of eternal subordination.

Grudem, Ware, et al are not just speaking of some ad extra reality whereby the God-man submits to the Father. They are looking at that reality and deducing (“theologizing”) that there is an eternal ad intra submission of the Son to the Father (and run into the obvious problems of Rahner’s rule, among other things). We are not told how this can “work,” however. In fact, no one to my knowledge has answered this question of how in eternal relations, between three persons, who share the same essence (and thus share the same will) there can be “submission.” Many have asserted such a construction, but they have not developed the position or explained how it can work. I have even asked this question of Fred Sanders, but I open it up to anyone who has an answer.

“Not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me”

This is where classic Christology comes into the picture. Here, a plain reading of the text suggests multiple wills. Christ distinguishes his will from the will of the Father. If you go with Grudem, Ware et al then you can affirm eternal subordination but you have to give up the doctrine of God (one will) and orthodox Christology (two wills in Christ). Ware holds (against orthodoxy) that volition is a property of person, not nature.

In my view, it is far more preferable to argue that Christ (single subject) is speaking here of his human will submitting to the will of the Father. This is hugely important for our doctrine of justification by faith. The obedience of Christ must be true human obedience. His human will must undergo the tests and trials of the Second Adam and he must show himself to be faithful. If Christ has one will – as some have argued or implied – then he has a divine will only. This jeopardizes our soteriology because when he is choosing to obey he is not really faced with difficult choices since his will is divine. And since the divine will is coextensive with all of God’s attributes, his obedience was a mere phantom. You end up with a sort of Docetic Christology and, I’m afraid, even more heresy.

But if you argue, as the orthodox do, that Christ here is speaking of his human will, how can we bridge his language of “coming down from heaven” with his language of “not doing my own will but the will of him who sent me”?

In other words, the “sending language” is the crux of the matter. How and why is the Son “sent”? Because of the principle of subordination in the Trinity? There is a better option.

Christ is one person with two natures. As such, each nature possesses its own will. The Son comes down from Heaven. But now that he is speaking in the flesh (as God-man), the person is speaking according to the human nature (“my will” = human will). The nature is not speaking, but the person speaks according to the human nature.

As orthodox Christology goes: Christ has two wills, not one. (Brothers) we are not monothelites. The sending of the Son is by the Father, but since the Son and the Father share the same divine will, the act of sending is willed equally by the three persons. However, as noted above, in light of the fact that God’s works are undivided, this ad extra work of sending manifests one of the persons (i.e., the Father in this case) as the terminus operationis. The undivided works of the Trinity are in jeopardy according to the position of Grudem, Ware et al.

Now why the Son is sent and not the Father or the Spirit is quite obvious, which goes back to Aquinas but is followed by the Reformed. The idiōmata (proper qualities) and titles by which the persons in the Trinity are distinguished should be kept and preserved distinct. The Son of God is more appropriately the Son of Man and the Son of a woman. It would not be “fitting” if there were two persons in the Trinity who both bear the title of “Son,” which would have been the case if the Father or Spirit had become incarnate. If the Holy Spirit had become incarnate, there would be two sons: the second person by eternal generation and the third person by an incarnation in time. This is not “fitting.”

The Son is “sent” (as an act of God’s will) in order to preserve the order of subsistence among the three persons. The Son becomes incarnate since the Son is “from” the Father in his manner of subsistence (hence: eternal generation). The order of subsistence reflects the order of their work and their works (missions) reflect the order of subsistence.

There are other reasons why Christian theologians over the ages have argued for why the Son became Mediator, but none of these theologians have spoken of an eternal submission. “Fittingness” not “submission” has been the usual reason and to me offers the best explanation since it allows us to keep an orthodox view of God and the Trinity.

Returning, then, to the text: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me.”

Based upon my construction above, we can maintain the two wills in the God-man, and thus remain orthodox. We can also maintain that since he had two wills, the will spoken of here is his human will, which means his obedience was truly human and thus vicarious for our salvation. Christology and Soteriology are both protected. But, more than that, we can see how the one will of God functions in light of three persons and their order of subsistence. The Trinity and our doctrine of God is also protected. Once you go down Grudem’s path, the price to pay is very severe indeed. All of the loci mentioned above need to be re-worked. They can argue as loudly as they want that they affirm one will in God, but their theology undermines that affirmation in several key ways.

At the end of the day, Grudem, Ware and I have to do some theologizing when it comes to John 6:38 and other texts. They still “theologize” in their Biblicism. No text is so obvious that we can simply give up our classical understanding of the Trinity, God, Christ, etc., in favor of the “obvious” or “clear” meaning of the text. If your theology of “perspicuity” leads you to compromise classical orthodoxy in several key areas of theology, perhaps it is time to call your “perspicuity” by another word: heresy! And when theologians become stubbornly incorrigible in the face of countless critiques of their unorthodox views, then raising the possibility that heresy is being spread is not inappropriate in my mind.